• Denholm Hewlett

[Film] Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989)

Warning: This film is not for the faint hearted. "Inside the flesh of an ordinary salaryman, terrible things are starting to happen. A story of man consumed by machine, Solid Metal Nightmares."

Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989) is the legendary post-apocalyptic cult classic from Shin'ya Tsukamoto. An iconic mind-melting science-fiction cyber-punk horror that was so shockingly visceral and ahead of it's time that it was deemed to be unreleasable. This gorgeously grotesque and ingeniously inventive underground film is an undeniable landmark for the history of experimental cinema, and is now regarded to be one of the most unique and influential films ever made. Tetsuo is an exhilarating cinematic enigma infamous for it's unforgettable transmutative body-horror imagery, hyper-kinetic graphic depravity and arresting audiovisual style. A full-throttle descent into an abyss of metallic mayhem and mesmerising industrial chaos. Tetsuo is an audiovisual experience unlike anything else you've ever seen.

This audaciously experimental avant-garde horror was written, directed, co-filmed, edited and produced by maverick auteur Shin'ya Tsukamoto, who has since become one of the most celebrated and distinctive Independent filmmakers in Japanese cinematic history. There are no other directors quite like Tsukamoto, his impressive career as a filmmaker has seen him cross all genres and boundaries, defying any straightforward classification. Tetsuo is the bold and visionary work of a meticulous cinematic craftsman with an unparalleled creative mind. The film's groundbreaking DIY imagery and handcrafted visuals were amplified tenfold through the dark electro-industrial soundtrack and unnerving sound design of composer Chu Ishikawa.

This disturbing and immensely stylish dystopian thriller presents a post-apocalyptic vision of the "New World". The plot follows the hyper-frenetic fever-dream of an ordinary salaryman, (played by Tomorowo Taguchi) who crosses paths with a deranged stranger, the Metal Fetishist (played by director Tsukamoto himself), who curses Tetsuo with harrowing night-terror hallucinations paired with an infectious metallic disease which violently mutates his human body into an odious hybrid of rusty flesh, scrap metal and blood soaked machine, (with his penis famously turning into an enormous spinning drill.) The ominous disease spreads at an unstoppable rate until Tetsuo's body is fully corrupted and out of control. Tetsuo and the Metal Fetishist engage in telekinetic warfare before the duo combine their otherworldly powers and transform into a terrifying hive-mind monstrosity.

The infamous production of Tetsuo: The Iron Man took a gruelling 18 months to complete, with many of the crew members growing impatient or disturbed and leaving the project. In the final months of shooting only the core actors remained. The majority of the film was shot inside the apartment of actress and head cinematographer Kei Fujiwara, who shared the role of filming with director Tsukamoto, who had previously made two short films of similar subject matter, The Phantom of Regular Size (1986) and The Adventure of Denchu Kozo (1987). The critical success of these shorts gave Tsukamoto the confidence to produce his ambitious Tetsuo project, all financed with money saved from his day job as an IT consultant.

Aside from directing, editing, co-filming, producing and playing one of the lead roles in the film, Tsukamoto also orchestrated and supervised all of the groundbreaking stop-motion photography-animation effects, easily the most distinctive and innovative visual aspects of the entire film. This experience allowed the director to refine his own unique and instantly recognisable aesthetic while still existing on the very edges of the cinematic industry. This low budget phenomenon was shot on grainy high-contrast black & white 16mm film, all of the director's previous works had been shot on 8mm.

At one point during the film's arduous production, when the pressures of finishing the project were becoming insurmountable, Tsukamoto nearly burned all the 16mm film negatives because the whole production had been such a bad experience, but he resisted and kept on pushing to finish his ambitious project. Luckily the director's gruelling efforts and determination paid off and resulted in one of the most unique and widely influential horror films ever envisioned, which was eventually followed up by two sequels in Tetsuo II: Body Hammer (1992) and Tetsuo: The Bullet Man (2010).

Before creating Tetsuo in 1989, Tsukamoto had already spent fifteen years independently directing his own short films and low-fi feature-length projects. The auteur's career started in 1974 and after the success of Tetsuo he went on to direct many more feature films including Hiruko the Goblin (1991), Tokyo Fist (1995), Bullet Ballet (1998) and A Snake in June (2002).

Tetsuo: The Iron Man, like with many of Tsukamato's earlier short films and several of his subsequent feature films, explore sophisticated themes of urban alienation, technological anxiety, psychosexual obsessions, and physical transformations. The film's innovative and shocking transmutative style and remarkable stop-motion animation effects make this project a masterful audiovisual spectacle unlike anything else you've ever seen, evoking a profound mixture of Katsuhiro Otomo's Akira (1988), David Lynch's Eraserhead (1989) and David Cronenberg's The Fly (1986).

There are no words that can truly explain or give justice to how grotesquely satisfyingly, beautifully conceived and utterly gut wrenching this cinematic masterpiece is. Highly original and disturbing. Watch it for yourself!

~ Psychic Garden